Yesterday, December 5, would have been Walt Disney’s 112th birthday, had he lived to be one of those Oldest Person in the World record breakers. I only happened upon this information yesterday and tried to get this post up before the day was through, on his actual birthday, but it wasn’t meant to be. So instead, in the spirit of his studio’s film Alice in Wonderland, let’s celebrate his Un-birthday today on December 6, shall we?! Yes, let’s!
I can honestly say I know very little about the man himself but I know that my childhood had a little extra magic in it thanks to my favorite Disney movies – some of which he lived to shape and others that were made as a result of his legacy. His company trades on happiness and optimism, a creative brand that caters to “dreams,” and there is never any doubt during a Disney movie that the good guy – or the princess – will ultimately win the day. In other words, he created one of the most American brands of all time.
Yet many Disney films feature a cast of British characters, either because, well let’s be honest, they needed a convincingly evil-sounding villain amid a cast of American “good guy” actors (Jafar from Aladin, Scar from The Lion King), or because the source material demanded it (A Muppet’s Christmas Carol, Brave, Robin Hood-mostly).
So today on the anniversary of Walt’s birth, I want to thank him for maintaining a “special relationship” with British culture and actors, by taking a look at some of my favourite Brit characters in Disney movies throughout the studio’s history. Ooh-de-lally!
The English Twin from the Lindsay Lohan Version of The Parent Trap
Let’s start with one you probably didn’t see coming! I like the English twin, Annie, better than her American twin, Hallie, mostly just because she’s English and thus saddled with the stereotypes of repression and Goodie Two Shoes Syndrome, while Hallie is carefree and outgoing. The poor dear didn’t even have pierced ears! But you know what, Annie let her new sis pierce them covertly in their cabin, which is kind of rock n roll for 12 years old.
Ebenezer Scrooge (Michael Caine), The Muppets Christmas Carol
Michael Caine is quite obviously a god among men and a national treasure, but to me he will always be Mr Humbug; Mr Grim; the sour flavor known as Ebenezer Scrooge. It’s sad to say but when I think of Victorian London, I picture Caine’s Scrooge stomping down the cobbled streets or wrapped up in his comically sexless nightwear. Caine is so perfect in this role, so adept at contempt and utter hostility towards his fellow men – and muppets – that you really can believe he would leave no cheeses for the meeses.
And he is so heartbroken at remembering his long lost love, Belle, or at learning the fate of Kermit’s tadpole, Tiny Tim, that his turnaround is completely heartwarming and uplifting. I hear the old Alastair Sim version of Charles Dickens’ classic tale is pretty great too, but I love that in the Muppets version we got to experience Scrooge’s past at the Rubber Chicken Factory, a little detail that Dickens himself forgot to mention. Fancy that.
George Banks (David Tomlinson), Mary Poppins
Mary Poppins as the favourite is too easy. Julie Andrews is perfection, of course, but I always really enjoyed the character of George Banks: the quintessential Edwardian Englishman who worked hard and believed that children were meant to be seen and not heard, or apparently ever even spoken to. As the new film Saving Mr. Banks points out, the story was never really about Mary, but was instead a story about redeeming familial bonds. George flying the kites with Jane and Michael at the end is beyond endearing. Oh, also, he doesn’t really object to his wife’s activities as a Suffragette, and since not objecting/total disinterest is about the best one can hope for with men of that era one could almost consider him progressive. You go, Mr. Banks!
The Vultures, The Jungle Book
I was born and raised in Liverpool until I was eight years old, but my native Scouser dad didn’t like the Beatles (in fact, he almost actively loathes them. Pause: to let that sink in. I KNOW….), so I just thought it was REALLY COOL that The Jungle Book had these four characters that sounded like me and my friends. Even if they were the jungle dummies.
Now that I’m older I realize how the film capitalizes on the old joke of Liverpudlians/Scousers-as-common-thieves by literally portraying these characters as vultures. Maybe that was one of the reasons the Beatles backed out of providing the voices, as they were originally going to do. I couldn’t find the definitive reason online. Either way I just love that, because of this film, generations of American kids are exposed to the bizarre accent of my youth.
As a side note, I dropped my Scouse accent quite quickly once we moved down to the Home Counties and the posh kids in my new school made fun of it. Little jerks. Still, now that I live in California it is helpful that the locals can understand 99 percent of what I say, instead of the probable 3 percent recognition (with very deliberate enunciation) that was likely had I maintained the Liverpudlian. End note.
Merlin (Karl Swenson), The Sword in the Stone
Oh yeah, and he has a sweet beard, too.
However, this film loses points for allowing Wart – AKA. King Frickin’ Arthur! – to have an American accent. That shame should have been Kevin Costner’s alone to bear.
Merida (Kelly Macdonald), Brave
And of course: Scar (Jeremy Irons), The Lion King
One of only two British-voiced characters in an American-accented film set in Africa and of course he is the dastardly, sneering villain of the piece. The other is Rowan Atkinson as Simba’s royal advisor, Zazu the hornbill, and he is in the “nervous Hugh Grant” vein of British characterization. Still, despite the rather galling stereotypes of Britishness, I enjoy what each character brings to the movie and in Scar’s case have rarely been so happy to see a lion skin rug wind up on the floor of a fallen god’s home. Cheering for their demise is the sign of a great villain, no?
From this Britican, those are my choices for best British characters appearing in Disney movies throughout the years. It’s by no means comprehensive so feel free to add your own below.
December 5 was also the anniversary of the repeal of Prohibition in 1933. What a dark time in America’s history, when a rough day in the coal mine couldn’t be soothed with a cold beer and a warm whiskey. To celebrate being alive in a time when we can freely enjoy both Disney and alcohol, check out these Disney Movie Drinking Games in order to get the two together where they belong.